Ada Mahon


Name Ada Mahon
Born April 11 1875
Died June 11 1951
Birth Location New Brunswick, Canada

Educator and highly regarded prewar principal of Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, which at the time had a majority Japanese American student body.

Ada Mahon (1875–1951) was born in New Brunswick, Canada, and moved to Seattle with her family as a teenager in 1888, graduating from Seattle High School in 1894. She began a teaching career in Seattle teaching at Denny and Horace Mann Schools before coming to Main Street School in 1910 as a vice-principal, later becoming its principal. Located near Seattle's Japanese town, it had many Nisei students; for the 1920–21 school year, 334 out of 445 students were Japanese American.[1] In 1921, the school moved to new quarters eight blocks away and became Bailey Gatzert School. It remained largely Japanese American: in 1926, the student body consisted of 741 Japanese American, 63 Chinese American, 2 Filipino American, 5 African American, and 19 white students.[2] Mahon never married and lived in her family home throughout her career.

She was by all accounts a stern, but highly respected and even beloved figure among both students and Nikkei community members. Seattle native and journalist Bill Hosokawa called her "the symbol of the American educational system for the Issei," while sociologist S. Frank Miyamoto, another Seattle native, wrote that while "she imposed a 'no nonsense' strictness in the classrooms and emphasized grillwork in all the basic subjects," she commanded respect not only for her intellectual efforts but as much for her moral influence on the students."[3] In her history of women teachers in Seattle, Doris Hinson Pieroth, wrote that while "she did not forgo corporal punishment, even the critics among former Gatzert students agree that she tempered her authoritarian style with kindness and caring."[4] Japanese American parents and community members apparently approved of her work, raising money for equipment at the school and sending Mahon on three educational trips to Japan and Asia. Exciting about what she had learned in Japan, she had students start bowing to teachers, which apparently riled Chinese American parents. The school held annual Japanese May festivals highlighting Japanese culture, while also strongly promoting Americanism. She stared a Good American Citizens Club, which instilled overt elements of American patriotism in her students.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she told students, "you were American citizens last Friday; you are American citizens today. You were friends last Friday; you are friends today," and ordered students wearing "I Am Chinese" buttons to take them off.[5] As the Nisei children left school in the spring of 1942 bound for concentration camps, she held assemblies allowing them to say goodbye to their classmates. One former student recalled that her "last glimpse of Miss Mahon was her standing ramrod straight and resolute on the front steps. One hand—always extended to help and sometimes holding a wooden ruler to discipline—was waving goodbye, and the other clutched a white tear-soaked handkerchief."[6]

Mahon retired at age 70 in 1945 and passed away in Westport, Washington, of a heart attack on June 11, 1951.[7]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Lee, Shelley Sang Hee. Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese American. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Pak, Yoon K. Wherever I Go, I Will Always Be a Loyal American: Schooling Seattle’s Japanese Americans During World War II. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2002.

Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle's Women Teachers of the Interwar Years: Shapers of a Livable City. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Footnotes

  1. Yoon K. Pak, Wherever I Go, I Will Always Be a Loyal American: Schooling Seattle's Japanese Americans During World War II (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2002), 39.
  2. Doris Hinson Pieroth, Seattle's Women Teachers of the Interwar Years: Shapers of a Livable City (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 144.
  3. Bill Hosokawa, Nisei: The Quiet Americans (New York: William Morrow, 1969), 168; S. Frank Miyamoto, "An Immigrant Community in America," in East Across the Pacific: Historical and Sociological Studies of Japanese Immigration and Assimilation, edited by Hilary Conroy and T. Scott Miyakawa (Santa Barbara, Calif.: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1972), 234–35.
  4. Pieroth, Seattle's Women Teachers, 142.
  5. Pieroth, Seattle's Women Teachers, 56.
  6. Atsushi Kiuchi, cited in Pak, Wherever I Go, 41.
  7. Pacific Citizen, June 16, 1951, 2.